Feeling joy

Spinoza’s philosophy makes us re-think what joy is because he views joy as both an emotional and intellectual process: a feeling and a thought; a passion and a concept.

Let’s look at joy as an emotional process first. There are many times in our lives when joy is “visited upon us”: we watch a movie that we greatly enjoy; we eat some chocolate; the sun comes out; a person we like smiles at us; we learn that we’ve done very well in our exams etc. All these examples are for Spinoza “passions” because they happen to us. Spinoza has a precise definition of “passion”: it is a feeling which acts upon us. When joy is a passion, we are, to some extent, its “victim” in that we have limited control over whether we feel it or not.

Let’s examine cake as an example. Eating a cake is a “passion” in that you are, ultimately, putting yourself at the mercy of the cake: you have to trust that it will provide what Spinoza calls the “affect” of joy. The word “affect” is important in Spinoza because it is more than just a feeling, but is both a thought and a feeling. The “cake affect” involves both the feelings of pleasure that you have when you eat the cake and the ideas that it creates in your mind. This is partly why the advertising is so successful because it encourages your mind to generate positive ideas about a particular product that it is selling: for example, Salman Rushdie’s famous slogan “Naughty but nice!” sold the idea that the sensation of eating a cream cake was transgressive. When you eat a cake, all the ideas and feelings that you have about eating cakes, and much else – your situation when you eat the cake, your age, your degree of hunger etc. – will combine to produce a “passion”, a “cake affect”. While you may feel that you are “in control” of the joy you feel when you eat the cake – i.e. you think that you will definitely feel joy when you eat the cake – in actual fact, you are not in control: the unique concatenation of circumstances will have produced the “passion” of joy. You are not in control in the way you think you are.

So, this is joy as a “passion”: as something that happens to you. We live in a world which bombards us with joyful affects. Indeed, the psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek (The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, 2012) argues that our consumerist, capitalistic culture is constantly exhorting us to “enjoy” ourselves. It is almost an imperative of modern life. And he points out that this is oppressive and has the net effect of actually making us not enjoy anything because we’re constantly worrying about whether we’re enjoying it or not.

This was not Spinoza’s attitude at all. In Ethics, he does not demand that we “enjoy” ourselves, rather he says that if we thinks deeply and adequately about things, we will inevitably feel joy: it is the necessary effect of adequate thinking. This is a mind-blowing and important idea that I believe teachers need to get their heads around because it has profound implications for the way we teach. It provides a deep and profound purpose to education. Spinoza is effectively saying if we educate our children properly, they will feel joy, and vice versa.

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Spinoza and the joy of learning

This is the post excerpt.

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Teaching and joy, I’m joking right? For many working teachers today, the idea that it might be a joyful experience either for the teacher or the student is just not realistic. Sure, you might say some such claptrap in a job interview that teaching is just such a joy…but, in the real world, you’ve got to be kidding, right!?

And yet, there will inevitably be some good times. I’ve been a teacher in various English state schools for nearly a quarter of a century, and I’m now a teacher educator at Goldsmiths, University of London, helping post-graduate students become effective English teachers.

When I look back at my career in the classroom, I can recollect some joyful teaching experiences, which have mostly been when my students have been enjoying themselves by collaborating: drumming to their readings of poetry; acting out their own modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays; pursuing projects on humour, the Titanic and advertising; working out how to read a difficult but interesting passage in a group; doing improvisations and role plays. I have seen students genuinely joyful in these occasions: smiling and laughing at their enjoyment of the work. And that’s made the teaching joyful for me because joy – as we will see – is “contagious”.

But I’ve got to say, these moments of “optimum” joy have not been that frequent. And actually, while I think it’s important for teachers to provide students with these moments of joy, this is not really the type of joy I’m chiefly talking about in this book. No, I’m going to discuss a different species of joy, although what I will explore may well cover this “peak” moments as well. I’m going to explore the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s definition of joy and the implications it has for teachers.

Spinoza defines joy as a “man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection”. This definition takes some explaining but it’s worth going into depth right now about it because it forms the heart of my argument. I believe once a teacher is aware of Spinoza’s conception of joy, it will profoundly change his/her idea of his/her practice and life.

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) lived in Holland and was excommunicated from the Jewish religious community for his controversial religious views which rejected Judaic conceptions of God as giving man “free will” and being separate from nature. He was a philosopher who wrote detailed tracts on various religious texts, politics and the philosopher Descartes. His best-known work, published after he died, was Ethics, which is a short but dense book which outlines his entire theory of life, the universe and everything. It begins with proving and defining the existence of God, who Spinoza believed is “Nature”, and ends with an explanation of how humans can live in a state of “blessedness” and achieve eternal life (of sorts).

Recently, his philosophy has enjoyed a renewed surge of interest with thinkers as diverse as Stuart Hampshire, Gilles Descartes, Roger Scruton and Antonio Negri writing books on him.

This website is not going to be like them. It is not a exploration of his philosophy, but rather a very “hands-on” practical discussion of his ideas and how they might be applied in the classroom. At the centre of it is an in-depth debate about how and why Spinoza’s concept of joy can be very useful to teachers.

What I love about Spinoza’s notions is that you don’t have to change anything to be affected by them. As a teacher, you won’t have to suddenly start leaping up and down and playing all sorts of arcane fun and games with your students in order to put his philosophy into practice. All you’ll have to do is to start thinking like him, and then, you may well discover that your teaching becomes more joyful.

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